On crossing the border at Deadwater into Scotland, the signage is surprisingly dull. Scottish Borders and the Forestry Commission offer a muted welcome in fonts that resemble Comic Sans.
Turn around, however, and you get a stone plinth with lettering and brightly painted shields straight out of a history book, proclaiming simply “England and Northumberland”.
Despite the fact that this border could come to matter a great deal more in the years ahead, the moorland and blocks of forestry are of course interchangeable on either side. The landscape at this mid-point of the boundary seems to make its significance absurd: there is not much here to dispute, save the odd conifer or ewe oblivious to what jurisdiction they happen to grow or wander in.
Several years on from the first go at making this an international frontier once again in 2014, Brexit means that the European Union can no longer act as guarantor of a seamless crossing should Scotland become independent. This stands in contrast to one of the most mundane, yet essential, claims of Scottish statehood: this particular line on a map, unlike so many others all over Europe, has remained static for some 500 years.
Like the signage, this signals something strange about the relationship between the South of Scotland and Scottish nationalism. This is a region that has too often been relegated to a non-place, a vast forgotten corner with slim corridors of major infrastructure and sparse hinterland in-between.
Of course, the face that a landscape presents to a traveller is often deceptive. You could easily pass through such a ‘wild’ place and forget that, within living memory, these dales and fells would have echoed with the sound of rail traffic passing through Saughtree and the now-dead village of Riccarton. The Riccarton Junction once fastened the Waverly Line from Edinburgh to Carlisle to the Borders Counties Railway to Hexham.
What now seems like a naturally deserted interior was made that way by human policy, rather than some accident of nature or geography. This process of ripping out the old arteries of the South presents a puzzle for Scottish national identity today.
Northumberland, as the England flags and Euro 2020 slogans I passed in town squares and tiny hamlets alike testified, seems all the more English because of its northern position. Conversely, no one in Scotland refers to a ‘deep South’ as a place with the same depth of character, and influence on the national psyche, as the far north of the Gàidhealtachd.Embed from Getty Imageshttps://embed.smartframe.net/s/baeeb00ba17010131e44c0e4ef9b7f2e/455531788.html?source=aHR0cHM6Ly9iZWxsYWNhbGVkb25pYS5vcmcudWsvMjAyMS8wNy8xMS9zY290dGlzaC1uYXRpb25hbGlzbS1uZWVkcy10by1yZWNvbnNpZGVyLXRoZS1jb3VudHJ5cy1kZWVwLXNvdXRoLw..#0
Tory majorities in the South
Since the 2016 Scottish Parliament elections, in response to the Tory constituencies stretching from Wigtownshire in the west to Berwickshire in the east, it has become routine to jest that we should simply shift the border north a hundred miles or so.
Partly due to a tactical abandonment of these seats by the Liberal Democrats, and a series of boundary changes, the flip to solid Tory majorities now mirrors the situation in the three adjoining constituencies on the English side. They are of course quite similar: places of affluent retiree boltholes, farms, and market towns increasingly dependent on seasonal tourism to prop up struggling high streets. Local newspapers somehow battle on, but like the defunct train stations, the memory of truly regional economies and cultures are increasingly distant. Yet there is one point of consistency: the dynasties who once ruled the roost here, the Percys, Buccleuchs and Roxburghes, still own much of it.
The recent abject failure of George Galloway’s Alliance for Unity to set up shop here on a hard unionist ticket may tell us little beyond the candidate’s ever more brazen desperation to find a parliamentary seat on any terms, anywhere. But it does perhaps suggest that the South’s now solidly blue electoral map is not simply about unionism, but rather an ongoing sense that it is misgoverned and equally distant from both London and Edinburgh. Perhaps the latter, being smaller and closer, simply seems easier to kick against.
The raw deal has been long in the making. Unlike the Highlands and Islands, the South saw only limited benefits from the European Union’s regional development funding due to a statistical quirk that lumped the region in with the central belt. In 1996, its two regional tier authorities were squashed down into the unitary system, which effectively disadvantaged areas of low population density. Thus a council like Clackmannanshire, with a third of the population and roughly 2% of the landmass, is afforded the same powers as Dumfries and Galloway.
While the immediate political concerns are markedly different on either side, that blue border is an indictment against the failure of Holyrood to devolve power to regions and localities in turn. If democracy is about a fair and sensitive distribution of power, the current setup remains distant and shallow.
A new vision for Scottish Independence
Roaming through the borderlands, you can’t help but be reminded that the two figures who gave us the template for modern Scottish national identity (and all the ensuing tartanry of the nineteenth century) were also what we might call ‘Southerners.’
Robert Burns and Walter Scott were to varying degrees drawn to the culture of the Highlands, just as it was about to be decimated by the forces of lowland Scottish capitalism. Ever since, there has been a kind of magnetic north pulling at Scottishness – which manifests itself in all sorts of strange ways – not least endless argument about where the central belt begins and ends.
But if we have tended to erase the obvious and palpable ways in which those two national bards were definitively Southern, it is perhaps because they lived at a moment when the lowland rural culture that they emerged into was already on the brink of collapse. This process was memorably defined by Peter Aitchison and Andrew Cassell as the ‘lowland clearances.’
While the dramatic depopulation of the Highlands is writ large when we look at its particular landscape, we forget that the “emptiness” of the South is also the product of deliberate decisions.
Still, I think you’d struggle to find anywhere more quintessentially Scottish than the douce, rivalrous and fiercely independent border towns. At a micro level, such proud places remind us of the reality of Scotland as a nation of diverse and distinct regions: a reality that, after two decades of a modern national Parliament, has too often been obscured in favour of political expediency.
Reinstating the latent potential of Scotland’s deep South, and indeed empowering places at all points of the compass, would make the case of independence far more compelling than the quick and easy thrill of a second referendum tomorrow. Why? Because the case for Scottish statehood has always been, at its heart, about where power lies, rather than lines on a map and colourful signs.